Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United are at the club’s lowest ebb in many seasons with a rot firmly set in. The rot didn’t begin under Solskjaer, it didn’t even begin under José Mourinho, Louis Van Gaal, or David Moyes; the rot started back in the halcyon days of Sir Alex Ferguson at the helm.
Sacrilege, you say. Ferguson was the greatest manager in Manchester United’s history – how on earth can you suggest that the current mire started under his watch? Ferguson won two league titles in his final three seasons and appeared in three Champions League finals in his last five seasons.
That was a winning team. Moyes couldn’t handle them, and Van Gaal dismantled them. That’s the problem surely?
Ferguson was arguably Manchester United’s greatest ever manager but also played a stunning, and often untold, part in their downfall.
His row with Irish shareholders John Magnier and JP McManus in 2003-04 over breeding rights for the horse ‘Rock of Gibraltar’ overshadowed much of the season. (The breeding rights were worth up to £50m to the rightful owner). The pair owned about 29% of Manchester United at the time but later sold their stock to the Glazer family after reaching an impasse with Ferguson.
The Glazer family have long been derided at Old Trafford but never by management. Ferguson kept quiet on the Glazers, but his silence was bought; perhaps a guilt that the club was now racked with a £500m debt in part due to Ferguson’s fallout with Magnier and McManus over something so trivial as horse shares.
You could argue that this is all bullshit. McManus and Magnier might have sold their shares and the Glazers might have bought the club anyway, but this is the way it actually happened.
While Ferguson would praise the Glazers for giving everything the club needed, in subtle ways, the club started to change.
At first, it was business as usual. In 2004, Manchester United signed Wayne Rooney and the following season signed Nemanja Vidić, Ji Sung Park and Patrice Evra. In 2006, Manchester United signed Michael Carrick. In 2007, the club signed Owen Hargreaves, Anderson, Carlos Tevez and Nani. Berbatov arrived in 2008. Good team building.
From 2009 onwards, Manchester United’s transfer policy changed radically and they looked for ‘diamonds in the rough’ rather than guaranteed talent. They sold Cristiano Ronaldo for £80m and replaced him with Antonio Valencia, Michael Owen and Gabriel Obertan. It was hardly like for like.
Ferguson preached the need for “value in the market,” claiming Manchester City had distorted the playing field. Arsene Wenger had said similar about Ferguson after the Scot had signed Juan Veron and Rio Ferdinand earlier in the decade.
In 2010, United could not agree terms with Inter Milan for Wesley Sneijder. They signed Bebe, Chris Smalling and Chicharito. Each was unproven and the hope was that they would prosper under the floodlights at Old Trafford. In 2011, David De Gea, Phil Jones and Ashley Young signed. It was hoped that De Gea and Jones would grow into world class talent, while Paul Scholes came out of retirement during the season.
United did break the bank in 2012 to sign Robin Van Persie to give Alex Ferguson one last go at the Premier League in his final season; but they also signed Nick Powell, a young talent from Crewe Alexander to whom Ferguson devoted half a page of the following years’ autobiography, promising that he could become a great talent in the future (Powell is now 26, and playing for Wigan in the Championship).
Marouane Fellaini and Uruguayan Guillermo Varela were the key signings of David Moyes’ first transfer window.
Perhaps Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest managerial triumph was not his Champions League victories, but rather winning the league with the team that he did in his final season. He had long pledged that he would not repeat the mistakes of Matt Busby, retiring and leaving an ageing team behind him but in his final years; Ferguson’s attempts to win one last league title, going out a winner and getting ‘value in the market’ for diamonds in the rough proved impossible.
Had Manchester United reinvested the Ronaldo money properly – rather than skimping on Owen, Obertan and Valencia – and not made foolish punts on players that they hoped against hope would become world beaters – such as Bebe, Smalling and Powell – instead making reasoned, reasonable signings in the final years of Ferguson’s reign, things might well be different now.
Not all signings are destined to succeed. The signing of Phil Jones in 2011 for instance was seen as a coup. It might seem laughable, but Phil Jones was the Matthias de Ligt of his time. Sam Allardyce recently spoke on TalkSport in the United Kingdom about how Jones was the most complete footballer he had ever seen at that age. Something went wrong along the way for which Ferguson and United cannot be criticised.
But Bebe cannot be excused. Nor can Varela or Obertan. In the summer that Cristiano Ronaldo signed for Real Madrid for £80m, Bayern Munich signed Arjen Robben – one of the finest wide players of the last decade and someone well known to United – for just £25m.
For some supporters, it has seemed as though the era of 2013 to 2018 has been the worst in the club’s history; embarrassing performances by players never deserving to wear the shirt of Manchester United. That is certainly true, but the rot had set in before David Moyes ever rocked up at Old Trafford.
Manchester United’s transfer strategy had been poor since long before Moyes arrived and 2009 can be pointed at as the moment in which the shift occurred, a moment in which United stopped making shrewd signings and began signing long-shots at lower prices in the hope that the team would keep ticking over and that the Glazer saddled debt and interest could be paid off.
Under Ferguson, United were able to tread water and keep going but beyond the signings of De Gea and Van Persie, they would not thrive. It’s been a decade of disappointment at Old Trafford and a summer approaches in which there is little indication that any of this will change.